“The best defenders are those who never tackle.” – Chris Anderson and David Sally, in The Numbers Game
In 2001, Sir Alex Ferguson sold the Dutch international defender Jaap Stam to Lazio based in part on match data that showed Stam was tackling with less frequency. Ferguson would later call the decision the biggest mistake of his career.
What happened, and what can we learn from this and similar scenarios that we can apply in our own careers?
Like many people, in many professions, Ferguson had fallen prey to a cognitive illusion¹.
This illusion caused one of history’s greatest soccer managers to overvalue what he saw – in this case, Stam making many tackles, but then tackling at a declining rate – and to undervalue what he didn’t see – Stam’s increasing tactical awareness that let him prevent attacks long before a tackle was necessary. Ferguson wrongly concluded that Stam was becoming less effective, when in actuality the opposite was true.
As the psychologist Eliot Hearst² explains, “In many situations animals and human beings have surprising difficulty noticing and using information provided by the absence or non-occurrence of something… Non-occurences of events appear generally less salient, memorable or informative than occurrences.”
“In many situations animals and human beings have surprising difficulty noticing and using information provided by the absence or non-occurrence of something… Non-occurences of events appear generally less salient, memorable or informative than occurrences.” – Eliot Hearst
In other words, we notice what’s there much more than we notice what isn’t, as the figure below illustrates. In the left image, try to find the circle with the line through it. In the right image, try to find the circle without the line through it.
The Best Defenders are Those Who Never Tackle
The excellent book The Numbers Game discusses this phenomena in the context of soccer, but soccer is really just one example. The concept applies to all walks of life. But, for a moment at least, I’ll stick to the soccer example simply to illustrate, from pages 126-127 of The Numbers Game:
“As a result, people discount causes that are absent (things that didn’t happen) and augment the importance of causes that are present (things that did happen). This influences how we think about soccer: not only do we consider the goals that our team score more important than the goals they do not concede, but we value the tackles they make more highly than those challenges that their preturnatural sense of positioning, their game intelligence, mean they do not need to make. That is where Ferguson went wrong. He needed to engage in counterfactual thinking: Stam was not doing as much, but that was not a sign of weakness, it was a sign of his quality. But because Ferguson could not see those unmade tackles, he did not value them…The best defenders are those who never tackle.”
Tackling in the Real World
Perhaps you’ve noticed this in some other context: someone gets heaps of praise for taking care of an emergency, like getting a product demo to work at the last minute, or submitting a pile of deliverables just under the wire. Their efforts and accomplishments are celebrated with, “Great job!” or maybe a tangible reward.
Meanwhile, no one heard about the person who built and tested their own demo a month in advance, who quietly achieved the same ultimate outcome but without all the drama or added risk inherent to rushed actions. Or the person who completed their deliverables weeks ahead of time and had, by the deadline, already moved on to another project.
We ignore the quiet accomplishments because we didn’t even notice them. And, instead, we celebrate the achievements of those who juuust managed to pull something together and avoid catastrophe.³
We ignore the quiet accomplishments because we didn’t even notice them.
In soccer terms, we celebrate the tackles – even when they were entirely avoidable – and never spot the more effective players who snuff out attacks long before a challenge is necessary.
I’ve thought about this concept for a while, probably for many years in fact, because I have three facets to my perspective:
- I’m a manager: professionally, I lead a product marketing team at a mid-sized technology company.
- I’m a contributor: in addition to leading the team, I directly contribute by creating material, determining strategy, etc.
- I value defense: I play an awful lot of soccer, and at least half the time I’m in a predominantly defensive role.
As a manager, I strive to objectively evaluate each team members’ performance and identify areas of growth, strength, etc. It’s important to me to get this right. I want to give credit to the people who take care of things long before their urgent or become emergencies; if people are prone to leaving things to the last minute, I want to help them come up with tactics to avoid these rush jobs.
As a manager, I want to give credit to the people who take care of things long before their urgent or become emergencies.
To do either of those things, I have to be very diligent about asking questions and investigating (the good and the bad), and that takes time.
Whenever I encounter a last-minute situation, after it’s been addressed I try to talk to the people involved to ask questions like, “What contributed to this coming down to the wire?”, “How can we avoid this in the future?” It’s important to look back on the situation to determine what lessons can be extracted, and to change habits in order to avoid emergencies in future. The alternative is to go on rewarding the less effective people and behaviors.
It’s important to look back on the situation to determine what lessons can be extracted, and to change habits in order to avoid emergencies in future. The alternative is to go on rewarding the less effective people and behaviors.
Poor managers don’t ask these questions, and then the top performers will wonder why Mr. Emergency keeps getting pats on the back for narrowly avoiding a catastrophic screw-up, while Ms. Dependable quietly takes care of business all year without any credit or visibility. This does not lead to a happy outcome for the company, because sooner or later the quietly effective will leave.
As a contributor, and particularly as a contributor who takes some degree of pride in looking well ahead and preventing emergencies, I want to be part of an organization that can spot and value this characteristic. I suppose that, since jumping up and down and touting your own achievements is generally not the best approach, then it’s probably a good idea to keep track of things so that you can have fact-based discussions during performance evaluation time.
As a defender, it’s bugged me for years that folks who begin out of position but manage to recover to make a critical tackle get all sorts of credit (conversely, if I can go home after a match with a clean uniform, then I know I’ve done well). And my motivation in this case is purely team-oriented. For many years, I served as player-captain-manager of our teams, and I wanted to encourage tactical awareness and weed out the poor play that leads to desperation tackles.
Whoopty-Doo: What Does it All Mean, Basil?
I suppose the first step to overcoming cognitive illusions is awareness: knowing that they exist – and that we’re all susceptible – puts us on the path to recognizing them.
Maybe diligently asking questions is enough, or maybe we need to go deeper and actually set up procedures and metrics that let us quantitatively recognize situations for what they are (“Hey, Pat, your stuff always comes in a day or two before the deadline and the quality is lower.” versus “Hey, Sam, I just wanted to say that I appreciate that your material is always well-produced and consistently arrives two weeks ahead of time.”)
At any rate, at least we’re all aware now =)
¹ The linked Wikipedia page is a subset of optical illusions, which isn’t really what I mean in this case. Anyway, the reason I’m writing this footnote is because the Google search for cognitive+illusion showed a few things, one of which is this neat Inc.com video (about “Framing” and decision-making) with Daniel Kahneman. That friggin’ guy turns up everywhere.
² Fun fact: Eliot Hearst once defeated the legendary Bobby Fischer in a chess match
³ I feel like that’s the general story arc of every Curious George book